Someone I love is suffering

Someone I love is suffering

Someone I love is suffering, wrote a friend. What can philosophy tell me about my responsibilities to help them?

Someone I love is suffering, wrote a friend. What can philosophy tell me about my responsibilities to help them?

I want to begin thinking about this by sharing a story from the philosopher Raimond Gaita. It’s long-ish, but it’s beautiful, and points to something both deeply mysterious and profoundly practical.


"In the early 1960s when I was seventeen years old, I worked as a ward assistant in a psychiatric hospital … It reminded me of some of the enclosures at Melbourne zoo. When patients soiled themselves, as some did often, they were ordered to undress and to step under a shower. The distance of a mop handle from them, we then mopped them down as zoo-keepers wash down elephants.

"The patients were judged to be incurable and they appeared to have irretrievably lost everything which gives meaning to our lives. They had no grounds for self-respect insofar as we connect that with self-esteem; or, none which could be based on qualities or achievements for which we could admire or congratulate them without condescension. Friends, wives, children and even parents, if they were alive, had long ceased to visit them. Often they were treated brutishly by the psychiatrists and nurses.

"A small number of psychiatrists did, however, work devotedly to improve their conditions. They spoke, against all appearances, of the inalienable dignity of even those patients. I admired them enormously. Most of their colleagues believed these doctors to be naive, even fools. Some of the nurses despised them with a vehemence that was astonishing …

"One day a nun came to the ward. In her middle years, only her vivacity made an impression on me until she talked to the patients. Then everything in her demeanour towards them—the way she spoke to them, her facial expressions, the inflexions of her body—contrasted with and showed up the behaviour of those noble psychiatrists.

"She showed that they were, despite their best efforts, condescending, as I too had been. She thereby revealed that even such patients were, as the psychiatrists and I had sincerely and generously professed, the equals of those who wanted to help them; but she also revealed that in our hearts we did not believe this.”


I love that story so much that it pains me to interpret it. I would like it to stand as its own symbol, free to be approached and used as each of us needs to.

So, for just a moment, I will let it stand, the image of the nun a mystery and a blessing.


I won’t tell you now how to interpret the story and the image. I will simply tell you how it currently works on me.

The nun challenges me.

Do I see people? Do I see them as she saw the patients? Am I even capable of such a vision? Of such love?

She raises a question about helping.

To help, to see someone as requiring help, to think one is able to help … does all of this imply a relation of superiority?

Yes, I think it does. And purely in itself, there is nothing wrong with this. I am superior to Rahi in my judgment about whether now is a good time to cross the road. It is part of my duty as a father to own this “superiority” and use it for Rahi’s good.

But the nun too was superior in some dimensions - physically superior, more capable of making judgments about hygiene and care. She didn’t shy away from this.

But what she did in addition, what maybe she shows us, is that there must always be another relation between human beings, even to those we are helping: we must relate to each other as fully human, as somehow equal and equally a person.

This doesn’t at all settle the question my friend asked. But it might suggest something important that is relevant to the question.

One ever-present danger with helping is that we end up condescending to the person we are helping. And just like Gaita and the other well-meaning nurses and doctors, we may often not even be aware of this condescension. So it may be useful to actively remind ourselves of this danger, and do whatever we can to mitigate it.


Someone I love is suffering, asked my friend. What are my responsibilities to help?

I will write a lot more on this in the coming weeks and months, both because I care about my friend and because it’s a question that I think is important to many people. In fact, I had originally planned to write a lot more in this piece. But I have now decided against this.

Instead, I want to leave you with two things taken together, to come alive in you (or not) as they will: my friend’s question, and Gaita’s nun.